National News

Commitment to Activism

2014-08-28 11:14:01 lbridwell
Holocaust survivor Hedy  Epstein, 90, is arrested during a protest of the Michael Brown shooting in St. Louis. (Nancy Cambria/MCT/Newscom)

Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, 90, is arrested during a protest of the Michael Brown shooting in St. Louis.
(Nancy Cambria/MCT/Newscom)

Hedy Epstein made headlines around the world last week when she was arrested at a protest in St. Louis.

The 90-year-old Holocaust survivor was one of nine people arrested in front of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s office at an Aug. 18 protest against the governor’s handling of the fallout from the Michael Brown shooting.

When she was taken to the police station for booking, a local friend was notified, and that friend called Epstein’s son, a call that Epstein said was probably not too surprising to her son given her history of political activism.

“In the past, when I’ve been arrested, my heart beat a mile a minute, and this time I was very calm, like I was going to a picnic or something,” the elder Epstein said of being handcuffed and transported to the police station for booking.

Epstein spent the first years of her life in Germany. When Hitler came to power, she was 8 years old, her personal website documents. Six years later, her family placed her on a children’s transport to England and within a few months, her parents and other family members were sent to a concentration camp in France. After two years of correspondence through letters, her family was transferred to Auschwitz, and she never heard from them again.

Growing up in England during World War II, Epstein began her political education at a young age, and when she moved to the United States in 1948, she was already very interested in human rights and social justice issues.

When she moved to St. Louis with her husband in the 1960s, she took a job with the local fair housing agency, working to ensure that everyone might have equal access to housing.

“It’s not only something I did 9-to-5,” said Epstein of her involvement in civil rights advocacy in St. Louis. “It was a 24-hour involvement.”

St. Louis, from her experience, has long been a troubled city, but with the shooting of Michael Brown, “the cup runneth over,” she said.

“If I walk down the street with my white skin and a policeman comes by, he’ll probably say, “Good afternoon, ma’am. How are you?’ [But] if an African-American walks down the street at the same time in the same place, he’s immediately suspected of having stolen something, having murdered somebody, having committed some kind of crime. And why? Only because he has black skin,” said Epstein.

“This kind of violence has to stop,” she said of the shooting of the unarmed Brown and police actions against protest attendees. “Because violence begets more violence, and it’s just, it’s really scary.”

In addition to her involvement in civil rights issues in St. Louis, Epstein is part of the speakers bureau of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center and has gained notoriety in the past for her involvement in pro-Palestinian causes, having made five trips to Israel, according to her website. She has opposed both Israeli settlements and the security fence along the West Bank.

While Epstein said the only thing that kept her from attending the rallies right from the start was the festivities her friends and family had planned around her 90th birthday, she noticed the vast majority of the Jewish community was not nearly as eager to travel north to Ferguson.

A letter with more than 50 signatures from St. Louis’ Jewish community condemning both racism and the looting that had plagued the protests was released by the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council on Aug. 19. But the smallness of the Jewish presence at the rallies was noted by one St. Louis Jewish Light guest essayist, who said in an Aug. 13 column that she had only seen three familiar Jewish faces when she attended. An Aug. 24 Jewish Federation of St. Louis-Jewish Community Relations Council event titled “A response to Ferguson” was canceled late last week.

For now, Epstein said her phone has been ringing off the hook with interview requests from around the globe, but she plans on heading back to the protest line soon.

By then, said Epstein, “hopefully, it won’t be necessary anymore.”

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ADL Documents Rise in Global Anti-Semitism

2014-08-21 10:39:24 ebrown
The Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue in central Paris, which was recently attacked by pro-Palestinian demonstrators. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue in central Paris, which was recently attacked by pro-Palestinian demonstrators. (Wikimedia Commons)

A new report from the Anti-Defamation League details what it calls a “dramatic upsurge in violence and vitriol against Jews” related to Operation Protective Edge.

The ADL reported incidents linked to anti-Israel protests that involved attacks against Jews and Jewish buildings in Western Europe, South America, Canada, Australia and North and South Africa. The report did not include incidents in the U.S.

“There was a dramatic upsurge in violence against Jews and Jewish institutions around the world during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, said in a statement. From France to Argentina, from Canada to Chile, synagogues were attacked, Jewish cultural centers were vandalized, Jewish shops were threatened, and identifiably Jewish individuals [were] beaten on the street. Anti-Semitism was in the air, and in the streets.”

The ADL will share its report with members of Congress and world leaders in effort to raise awareness of the problem. The ADL Global 100 poll, a survey of anti-Semitic attitudes, found that one-quarter of those surveyed in 100 counties harbored anti-Semitic attitude.

The ADL detailed some examples in a statement that included shouts of “Jews to the gas!” at an anti-Israel rally in Germany; a newspaper in Spain publishing an op-ed with blunt anti-Semitism; a sign that said “Well done Israel, Hitler would be proud” at a London protest; signs showing [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu drinking the blood of Palestinian children in various places; and pro-Palestinian protesters pelting Jews with cans and eggs and shouting at them in Manchester, England.

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The Freedom Summer of 1964

2014-08-21 10:30:00 ebrown
Heather Booth protests for voting rights in Mississippi during the 1964 Freedom Summer. (Wallace Roberts)

Heather Booth protests for voting rights in Mississippi during the 1964 Freedom Summer. (Wallace Roberts)

At the Freedom Summer anniversary conference in Jackson, Miss., the activists who registered black voters and taught in Freedom Schools under the threat of violence 50 years ago stood up to introduce themselves.

It took three hours to hear what they did in the Magnolia State back in 1964 and have gone on to do in the half-century since.

“Almost everyone had a social justice connection,” said Heather Booth, who went to Mississippi as a college freshman from New York before moving on to a career as a nationally prominent liberal activist. “The former volunteers went on to work as teachers, environmental activists and in the field of health care.”

Organized by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, Freedom Summer sent mostly white college students to Mississippi to confront the violent racism in the state.

In the summer of 1964, some 1,500 volunteers worked registering blacks to vote, teaching in Freedom Schools and organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which aimed to challenge the state’s all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention that year.

Jews were represented among the young civil rights volunteers in numbers far exceeding their share of the population.

Debra Schultz, the author of “Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement,” said that like other SNCC activists, Jewish Freedom Summer volunteers were motivated by a desire to hold the country to its full promise of democracy. Many were inspired as well by their Jewish and often left-leaning backgrounds.

“Among particularly ‘Jewish’ motivations, we can cite: an identification with another racialized people and a passion for racial justice, born of the
recent experience with the Holocaust,” Schultz said.

Booth said that she came to Mississippi a year after visiting Israel, where she made a commitment at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial to struggle for justice. Schultz noted that her synagogue had funded the $500 bail money required to participate in Freedom Summer in the case of an arrest.

The first days of Freedom Summer saw the murder of three civil rights workers — Jewish New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and black Mississippian James Chaney, who had been investigating the burning of a black church. During the weeks-long search for the workers, the bodies of eight murdered black men were found in the Mississippi countryside before the discovery of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner’s remains.

Tension and danger lurked throughout the summer.

There were another four people critically wounded, 80 activists beaten, 1,000 arrests, 37 churches and 30 black homes or businesses bombed or burned.

Booth recalls feeling frightened all the time that summer.

“But it was also very exhilarating,” Booth said. “There were nightly meetings at black churches, with a lot of singing.”

In Shaw, Miss., where blacks were neglected, Booth said she felt honored that her hosts generously gave up their beds for her and three other volunteers.

“In the black part of town, there were no toilets, no sewers and no street lights,” Booth said.

Booth continued her activism after Freedom Summer. She became involved in the women’s movement, founding Jane, an underground abortion counseling and referral service in Chicago. She went on to serve as the founding director of the NAACP National Voter Fund and Americans for Financial Reform. She also coordinated grassroots efforts to win passage of President Obama’s first budget.

Based in Washington, D.C., she currently consults for and advises a variety of liberal advocacy groups.

At the anniversary conference in late June, Booth was one of more than 200 former Freedom Summer volunteers in attendance. They met with nearly 2,000 younger activists.

Larry Rubin, a veteran labor movement activist who came to the reunion from Takoma Park, Md., worked on the SNCC staff as a young man from 1961 to 1965, first in southwest Georgia. In early 1964, he went to Mississippi to set up the infrastructure for Freedom Summer.

Rubin said that when he trucked donated books to the Freedom Schools, he was pulled over, roughed up and arrested by police who expressed anti-Semitic sentiments. (But when he came back to Mississippi later as a labor organizer, he recalled, a policeman who had once threatened to kill him if he ever again showed his face in his town praised his efforts to unionize a local business.)

When local blacks faced harassment, he said, all the civil rights workers could do was offer to report it to the federal government.

Rubin left the SNCC in 1965 as it was turning toward Black Power and whites were being pushed out of the organization. Rubin recalls feeling a sense of relief, like he was dismissed and could go home.

He returned to university studies to learn more about his Eastern European Jewish roots, just as the Black Power movement was encouraging African-Americans to embrace their heritage.

Rubin, who grew up in Philadelphia, said his civil rights work was influenced by his parents, who taught him to fight for social justice because of what his grandparents went through fleeing Europe.

But while many volunteers were Jewish, their backgrounds were not necessarily at the forefront within the movement.

“In the 1960s we didn’t discuss being Jewish, and we didn’t bring up our motivation for getting involved in the movement,” Rubin said. “There was no space to discuss Jewishness.”

Bob Moses, the well-known black civil rights leader and Freedom Summer organizer, said that he was not aware at the time of participants’ Jewish identities.

“I didn’t know if Freedom Summer people were Jewish,” he said.

At the anniversary gathering, however, it was a topic of discussion, with a breakout session focused on Jewish participation. Also, concurrent with the reunion, the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life organized events on Jewish involvement in civil rights and social justice activism.

Freedom Summer volunteer Annie Popkin said her family was very aware of discrimination because her father was shut out of Harvard Medical School due to quotas that limited the numbers of Jewish students. At times her family embraced their Jewishness. Other times they turned away from it, seeing it as a painful liability, she said.

She said she was “so ready to go” south when organizers recruited students like her at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass.

Popkin started early in her activism. When she was 12 or 13, Popkin said, her mother took her to a picket line to demand fair housing in her hometown on New York’s Long Island after a black family who moved into the white section had their house burned.

Later, in ninth grade, she and a friend organized pickets of Woolworth’s in New York City in support of sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the South. Once when she was picketing, Popkin said, a woman shouted at her, “You’ll make my husband lose his job, and that’s not nice of you!”

“I realized I was not going to be a nice 1950s girl,” Popkin said in a telephone interview from her home in Portland, Ore., where she works as a counselor.

By the time of her Freedom Summer orientation in Oxford, Ohio, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner had already disappeared. Freedom Summer organizers feared the worst.

But Popkin remembers feeling optimistic as hundreds of black and white SNCC volunteers locked arms, held hands and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

“Just imagine if everyone in the country could feel this spirit and see this vision. Wouldn’t people want to end segregation?” she recalled thinking.

Popkin calls her optimism naive.

“It was so moving to be part of the embodied vision of beloved community we were creating in working together, singing together, risking our lives together, believing together,” she said. “We knew what was right, and we spent our days and nights organizing for it.”

She went to Vicksburg, Miss., where she gathered signatures for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She witnessed the threats and reprisals — economic and physical — that kept blacks from attempting to register to vote.

“We got to see the strong consequences of what we were doing,” Popkin said.

Popkin, who went on to become involved in the women’s movement and teach women’s studies at various universities, pointed to the value of recalling the experiences of rank-and-file civil rights activists like her.

“There’s been a media emphasis on leaders in the civil rights movement and not the individuals who participated,” Popkin said. “All of our stories can be inspiration. If we could make change at 18, 19, 20, so can others today.”

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Is the GOP the pro-Israel party?

2014-08-14 11:16:18 lbridwell
RNC’s Matt Brooks sees a  shift in Democratic support  away from Israel.

RNC’s Matt Brooks sees a
shift in Democratic support
away from Israel.

A new Pew Research Center poll showing Republicans more sympathetic than Democrats to Israel has Republican Jewish activists crowing and their Democratic counterparts questioning whether the poll gives an accurate picture of support for Israel.

“For years, public opinion polls have documented the large gap in support for Israel between Republicans and Democrats, with Republicans being far more supportive of Israel,” Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Committee, said in a news release. “This poll shows a gap of 27 points.”

Conducted from July 8 to July 14, the week Israel began its air operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip but before its ground invasion, the poll asked, “In the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, which side do you sympathize with more — Israel or the Palestinians?” Possible answers were: Israel, Palestinians, both, neither, don’t know or refused to answer.

The survey of 1,805 respondents showed that 73 percent of Republicans sympathize with Israel in the conflict compared with 44 percent of Democrats.

The results mark a change from the same question asked in a poll in April, when 68 percent of Republicans sympathized with Israel and 46 percent of Democrats did.

A closer look reveals further divides. Respondents who consider themselves conservative Republicans support Israel by 77 percent, compared with 68 percent of moderate Republicans. Among Democrats, 48 percent of moderate Democrats support Israel, compared with 39 percent of liberal Democrats.

Brooks, in the news release, issued July 15, called the poll results during a time of war “a sad and sobering confirmation of the Democrat party’s shift over time away from support of Israel, especially at its grassroots. If support for Israel ceases to be bipartisan, the U.S.-Israel relationship — which is of so much benefit to both countries — will suffer.”

But Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that while Middle East hostilities continue, it’s more important to highlight the unity of the Jewish community than discord. “I think that talking about polls and policies now, in the midst of a crisis, is a misdirection of energy.”

Moline said that he recently spoke with Brooks, his RJC counterpart, and that they both agreed that Jewish unity should trump political brinksmanship at the moment.

Still, he said, “it doesn’t surprise me that, having found a single piece of news that fits their agenda, the Republican Jewish Coalition put out a news release. It doesn’t surprise me at all. But I don’t think this is the time for us to start debating how you get a poll to shift one way or another.”

Other Democratic supporters of Israel suggest that the poll’s wording distorted the results. U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who is Jewish and one of the strongest pro-Israel voices in the House, questioned the use of the word “sympathize.”

“The word sympathy tends to ask: ‘Who do you think is downtrodden and having a difficult life?’” said Sherman. “Look, the average Israeli lives a pretty good life [compared to] our image of the average Palestinian.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) agreed that some Democrats are siding against Israel for well-meaning, but ill-informed, reasons.
“I think people on the left side of the political spectrum are moved by the sight of innocent civilians getting killed and injured,” said Waxman. “More of that has happened on the Palestinian side and [voters are] seeing people that were not combatants” being injured or killed.

“They may not have the perspective that Israel cannot tolerate a constant bombardment that is coming in from Gaza and [the Israelis] have no other choice than to hit back,” Waxman said.

He added that the opinions reflected in the poll numbers are not shared by his House colleagues on both sides of the aisle, who consistently and, usually unanimously, pass bills and resolutions in support of Israel.

Sherman said, contrary to the poll results, threats to support for Israel come from both right and left.

“You have on the Republican side the Rand Paul isolationists, who are probably the greatest threat as a practical matter to U.S. support for Israel. And you have on the left, and have always had on the left, people who are misguided because they want to support the underdog and they think that because the average Israeli is richer than the average Palestinian, and because Israel is the most powerful military west of the Jordan,” they need to sympathize with the Palestinians.

Another problem, according to Sherman, is what he calls the “Kent State Rorschach test.” The shooting of students at Ohio’s Kent State University who were protesting U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War by the Ohio National Guard was a defining moment for many liberals, he said.

“There are some liberals who don’t bother to figure out who’s right or wrong in any conflict. They just root for the scruffy-looking students and root against the uniformed military. Because they see everything as a Rorschach test reminding them of Kent State,” said Sherman.

According to Sherman, voters lacking information could easily jump to conclusions based on their bias.

“When I see a bar fight, I don’t bother to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong,” joked Sherman, who is bald. “I just root for the bald guy.” contributed to this story.

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Right Man for the Job

2014-08-14 10:46:13 ebrown
Rabbi David Saperstein (World Economic Forum)

Rabbi David Saperstein (World Economic Forum)

After being vacant for nearly a year, the role of America’s top representative for religious freedom in the world will soon likely be occupied by a leader well known to the Washington, D.C. Jewish community.

President Barack Obama on July 28 announced that he is nominating Rabbi David Saperstein, director and chief counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, to be the United States’ ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

“I am grateful that Rabbi Saperstein has chosen to dedicate his talent to serving the American people at this important time for our country,” the president wrote in a statement. “I look forward to working with him in the months and years ahead.”

Named the most influential rabbi in the United States in Newsweek magazine’s 2009 list of  the Top 50 Influential Rabbis in America, Saperstein has been on the forefront of the Reform movement’s campaign for social justice and a prominent voice in the Establishment Clause and religious freedom debate in the United States.

If confirmed by the Senate, his new position will put Saperstein at the head of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, which was created by the overwhelmingly bipartisan passing of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The act was designed to combat growing religious persecution around the world, with the ambassador’s main role being to promote religious freedom while monitoring and holding violators accountable.

The ambassador is also principal adviser to the president in religious freedom matters and can make policy recommendations for the United States to enact toward nations violating the individual’s right to freedom of religion, belief and practice. Changes in the level of aid a country receives from the United States, economic cooperation and even sanctions can be recommended by the ambassador, although all are subject to presidential review.

Despite Saperstein’s liberal political views putting him at odds with more conservative Jewish organizations on some issues, most believe that his experience on international religious freedom issues makes him a good fit for the positon.

“He, although obviously on the liberal, progressive side of the political spectrum, has excellent relationships across the religious spectrum, [not only] in terms of different religions and denominations but also in terms of from liberal to conservative in many faith communities,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy at the Orthodox Union. “That wealth of experience and that wealth of knowledge are unsurpassed in someone who could fill this position.”

Diament highlighted Saperstein’s efforts to pass the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1993; the International Religious Freedom act, which created his future position; and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000.

Diament said that his organization would disagree with Saperstein on issues relating to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment in the fight over what constitutes a too close relationship between the federal government and a religion, but rarely has it disagreed on religious freedom issues.

Saperstein and Diament both served on the president’s faith advisory council and, said Diament, “in many of those discussions, [Saperstein] and I were on the same page.”

Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, called the nomination an “outstanding choice” and noted the decades he has witnessed Saperstein’s work with religious freedom.

“I think David got nominated to this position because of his experience, his expertise, his caring, his sensitivity to these issues and his being able to speak out,” Mariaschin said. “The commendatory part of this is that someone who is so deserving and who can do so much good has been nominated for the positon. David is very well connected internationally, and his reputation, his writings, his speaking — all of those things are known in so much of the world in which we operate and [in which] we’re going to operate, so I think that’s a big plus.”

So far, there have only been three others who have held the post, and Saperstein will become the first rabbi to occupy it.

Although the post had broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill when it was created — something Ambassador Robert Seiple, the first person to hold the post, said was unusual during at the time due to the Monica Lewinsky fight — its creation was not initially supported by the State Department and still lags on the priority list compared with other ambassadorships.

“The State Department’s concern was: ‘Look, we have these bilateral relationships that are complex at best, and now you’re going to throw in this huge new issues of religions,’” said Seiple. “Well, 95 percent of the world’s problems today take place at the intersection of politics and religion, so the State Department very definitely has to understand this issue.”

Seiple said that he was close to Saperstein and said that like many across religious lines, he considers him his favorite rabbi. Seiple recalled that during his tenure, he and Saperstein joined each other on a trip to Africa and Europe. From his interactions, Seiple said that Saperstein was the right choice and should have been announced sooner. He also said that Saperstein’s experience could help raise the position’s profile and effectiveness.

“He understands Washington. He’s not intimidated by it,” said Seiple. “He understands the issue and can articulate it. He’s a listener which will make him a good negotiator when tough issues have to be confronted in other countries. He’s not a grandstander, he can work quietly behind the scenes, but he’s very effective. And I think in terms of his moral courage and the ethical dimension of the man, he’s the gold standard.”

Seiple nevertheless believes that the task appears more daunting than ever, made more unpredictable by the Arab Spring and the increased strength of Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to Seiple, American influence has declined in much of the world making it harder for the ambassador to be persuasive.

“When I was there, I think the U.S. flag had a lot more power and commanded a lot more respect. So in that sense, it’s going to be a little bit harder today,” said Seiple. “The world is a lot more dangerous than it was when I was there.”

Yet, he holds out hope for Saperstein. “I think David will change all of that because he’s not a small thinker and he’s not a small-ball player,” he said.  “I think he’ll have some visionary approach to the issue, and I think it’s possible that in the next few years you’ll see some real changes.”

A new religious freedom ambassador “is going to be welcomed in a lot of places, and in those places where religious freedom is being abridged, they should know that they’re going to have in our [ambassador] someone who is keeping a very close eye on what they’re doing,” said Mariaschin. He listed the proliferation of violence against Christians in Iraq, Syria, Africa, South Asia and Iran as top priorities for Saperstein.

“It’s almost as if you don’t know where to start, and unfortunately the list is long and it is growing longer,” he added.

Seiple’s advice to Saperstein for his new position would be keep his goals to around two to three.

“The thing that can sink you pretty quickly is if you have a 12-item agenda and you’re trying to operate sort of like John Kerry and you end up getting criticized by everybody,” said Seiple. “So find a few things that you want to change during the time you’re there … and go for it.” contributed to this story.

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